Dams · Madhya Pradesh · Rehabilitation

Legally enforceable Humane Rehabilitation, not compensation needed: Madikheda Dam in Madhya Pradesh

Guest Article by Bageshwer Singh and Pooja Chand

Dam construction on any river is often preceded by displacement of locals and followed by submergence of villages, turning them into ghost villages. All the major river water projects involve large scale displacement of locals, and most of these displacements lead to creation of vulnerable groups. The stories of displacement and forced evictions can be traced back to construction of dams like Sardar Sarovar Dam on river Narmada, or Tehri Dam on Bhagirathi or Hirakud Dam on Mahanadi. Almost always, these displacements are rife with little insight into the village specific consequences of dam construction, villagers are left with no option but to give up on their ancestral lands to move out to alien colonies with no land to their name. Arundhati Roy, in her essay, ‘The greater common good’, while arriving at the figure of number of people displaced in the developmental projects in the last fifty years writes, “Fifty million people. I feel like someone who’s just stumbled on a mass grave.” 

We are looking at one such case at Atal Sagar Dam (Also referred as Madikheda Dam) on river Sindh in Shivpuri district of Madhya Pradesh. Like the town of Old Tehri in Uttarakhand currently submerged in the Tehri Dam, the partially submerged village of Karmai Kalan or Amola with its ancient buildings tells us the tale of ghost villages in Atal Sagar Dam.

Partially submerged village of Amola Photo by Bageshwer Singh

The construction of Atal Sagar dam was completed in 2007, while the displacement of the villages and communities started in the late 90s. 13 villages were affected in the construction of this dam, where 9 were completely submerged and 4 got partially submerged. The submergence of a village not only submerges a few houses and fields, but it takes with it the stories and emotions associated with the homeland. During our walk, we met the residents of villages who were displaced and made to settle in new locations. While the experience is very specific for each family, and even unique for each age group within the same family, there is a common factor of compulsory shifting, from an ancestral hometown to a somewhat alien location.

Here are some of our observations and interpersonal conversations from the residents of two villages. One is Chhatpur-Khajuri and the other is Karmai Kalan, on opposite sides of National Highway-27.

Satellite image showing location of villages and Atal Sagar Dam
  1. Punarwas (Resettlement) of Chhatpur-Khajuri

As we were walking upstream along river Sindh finding our way through google maps, crossing multiple bends and forest patches along the Atal Sagar dam, we reached a village called Chhatpur-Khajuri which still appears on the google map but is now completely submerged under the dammed waters of river Sindh. As we walked further, we realized Chhatpur is not the only village which got submerged, there were multiple villages on the map like Khajuri, Binega, Dehri, Bamnaua to name a few.

It was during our walk through Udwaha village, that we learnt about the Chhatpur punarwas [relocation] colony near village Rajgarh on Narwar-Amola Road, adjoining NH-27. Chhatpur is primarily inhabited by the Sahariya tribe, who are mainly dependent upon the forest for their livelihood and agricultural land for subsistence. In those tropical dry deciduous forests, gum of Salayia (Boswellia serrata) and Chheloa (Butea monosperma) and bark of Kahua (Terminalia arjuna)are the most common NTFP, which are collected and sold by tribal communities. Along with these, some other minor forest produce such as some seasonal herbs are also sold which are collected during the monsoon.

We reached the village in the late morning and people were almost ready to leave for their day’s work. When we told them about our journey, and our curiosity in knowing about their life in this village, our questions made them nostalgic about their life along the river. They recalled life when the river was in their front yard, forests all around where they could take their livestock for grazing and collect forest produce, and farm their land for a self-sufficient life. Even though there had been monetary challenges in life along the river, at least they had the agricultural and grazing land and water security. The dam took all that away. When the river met their water needs, they did not have to rely on just one hand pump in the village.

A resident, Birenad Adivasi says, “Yha kachu nahi hai, Sarkar ne aakar patak dia, pehle ghar ke paas se Ganga maiya behti thi, ab Ganga maiya hmare ghar me birajmaan hai.” [There is nothing here. The government has thrown us here. Earlier, the mother Ganges used to flow near our home, now she resides inside our homes.] He has seen his childhood among rivers and forests, “There was peace, our own land” He adds, “Sarkar andhi hai, kuch cheezein sahi bhi ho rhi hain and kuch sahi nhi hai aur na hi kuch samajh aata hai” (The government is blind, we are still not able to figure out their direction of development).

It’s been two decades since they received compensation for their land. Resources have been exhausted and now they are dependent upon daily wage work, which is quite meagre and uncertain. He says, sarcastically, “See! We have everything, cemented roads, naala [drain], electricity, even a hand pump and a highway. Just have a look around. We have everything, yet nothing.”

For a tribal community where their entire livelihood is dependent upon forests and rivers, having to relocate next to a National Highway with poor forest accessibility and no agricultural land was challenging. The major shift was the loss of cultivable land which could not be compensated as prices of land near the highway were higher and the monetary compensation, they received was not enough to buy them land for agriculture after spending a substantial amount in building their homes. We could see a common notion of resentment towards the administration.

Birenad Adivasi with his family, residents of village Chhatpur. Photo by Bageshwer Singh
The Chhatpur Punarwas Colony. Photo: Bagheshwer Singh

2) A dis-empanelled village with solar panels.

As urbanites, there is certainly an element of wonder and curiosity when we come across village life different from the conventionally imagined life of a rural area. This was a village off the grid, quite literally. As we walked little uphill, from the receding waters of the dam, through a forest patch of Chheola (Butea monosperma) & Kahua (Terminalia arjuna), we reached a tribal settlement in the outskirts, mud houses covered with pink blooms of Bougainvillea, and courtyards filled with drying barks of Arjun, surrounded by trees of Doodhi (Wrightia tinctoria). We imagined its splendour and the intoxicating fragrance in summers. Moving further ahead, entering another settlement of Karmai Kalan village, we realized something was amiss. When asked “Who is the head of this village?” Bharat Gurjar, a resident, smiled and replied, “Everyone is the head/Pradhan in this village”. It was quite an unexpected reply, nevertheless as he beckoned, we walked with him to his house, from where he showed us around the village.

Karmai Kalan is surrounded by hills and forest by two sides, on one side by the backwaters from where we could easily see the Amola bridge on the dammed river, and on another side by the main channel of River Sindh. There was an interesting instance of coexistence and shared spaces with the waders and other waterfowl, which foraged in the waters recently perturbed by livestock, and a couple of freshwater crocodiles who made their subtle appearance along one of the two wells of the village. The other well is the community’s source of potable water. The village is sustaining itself, without any apparent availability of electricity or other resources commonly made available by the state.

As we walked around the village, a few curious kids who were excited to show us the birds and crocodiles, led us to the dam’s backwaters to have a look through binoculars. One of them, Ashu, was busy washing his bicycle in the water, and he waved at us and exclaimed, “Wo dekho dog” [look! There is a dog]. It was surprising for us to hear an English word from a kid who is growing up in this isolated village. Pooja asked him if he goes to school, and he replied that he went to school till 1st class when his family was in Bhopal, but they had to leave the city because of the pandemic, and now he cannot continue the school, since there is none.

While it appeared quite lively and people seemed quite content, we soon realized what was amiss. From the conversations with the residents, we came to know that it was one of the villages that were relocated and the residents were displaced to government apartments near Shivpuri. Among the challenges that the residents faced in this displacement was that the compensation they received was only for the submerged houses, but not their agricultural land which was little uphill. Now they were expected to tend to their land some 15 km away from their relocation settlement (in Shivpuri town). This proved to be a challenge, to manage far off fields along with their livestock, and the compensation amount was not enough for them to buy new land in an expensive suburb near Shivpuri.

Unlike most other displaced villages, this one decided to return back and resettle at the same spot along the river but a little uphill, vacating the government provided apartments to return to their ancestral land. Since the village still “exists” in their displaced site as per the administrative records, the present dwellings are unrecorded by the administration and the village does not exist on any official maps. It also doesn’t have any school, nor is it a part of any State or Central government’s schemes, and even lacks an electricity connection. Solar panels which almost every household has bought now are just enough to charge their mobiles which assist them to coordinate their primary activity of agriculture and dairy, for which their nearest market again is Shivpuri. While having dinner at our host’s house just outside the room, we realized how dark the village is, except for an occasional solar light in a few houses. Those lights too were quite dim and often flickering.

Soon after our dinner, while having some conversations with the family, one of their relatives joined us. At first, it was a light hearted conversation but as we delved more into village life, we realized the regret they feel for not being able to do justice to their children by not sending them to school. He recalled his childhood when the village had school and he often missed classes, but now even if he knows the value of education, he is unable to send his kids to school. 

The village, being sandwiched between the receding waters of the dam and the river, has its own set of challenges. The land, which is used to grow crops in summer, gets submerged in each monsoon only to come up again in late winters, but there is no surety. Year 2021 saw extreme floods and much of the land was still submerged even till the end of February. There are a lot of uncertainties, but over the years the village has developed an excellent coordination within each family, where the men are involved in grazing livestock and selling milk in the market and women and children in tending the fields, household chores and cooking. The children are equally involved in all the activities. There are a few patches of kutcha roads leading from the village to the highway which the residents use to deliver milk, but monsoon often leads to the complete isolation of this village for a few months.

A gurjar settlement at Karmai Kalan. Photo: Bageshwer Singh
Partially submerged well at Karmai Kalan. Photo: Bageshwer Singh
Tribal household at village Karmai Kalan. Photo: Bageshwer Singh
Birding with the kids of Karmai Kalan. Photo: Pooja Chand

A 2017 study on dam related displacements reports that displaced people tend to end up worse than before, and in over 82% of cases, their living condition and socio economic situation deteriorated. While some of the displaced people get the compensation for their land, the landless are deprived of their livelihood opportunities. Moreover, the intangible wealth of the village can never be compensated. These changes such as fragmented social networks and communities, increased health and psychological risks are socially disruptive, lasting and often irreversible.

It is interesting to note how contrasting the responses were for both the villages, despite a similar situation of having been displaced. Different communities reside in a village and the socio economic status of a community is mainly dependent on the caste hierarchy. While Chhatpur is primarily a Sahariya village, Karmai Kalan is a blend of Gurjars and Sahariya. On one hand, the Gurjar community has been infamous for their fiercely independent character in the badlands of Chambal and Yamuna, and are known to be dominating, the tribals in contrast have been suppressed to the extent that their current occupation is reduced to manual labor and subordinate activities to other higher castes. Although the crisis of displacement was a common factor for both villages, the contrast in response could be due to the social placement of the communities that constituted the population of these villages. Perhaps a more detailed study on the community structure dynamics of the villages would make these displacements less of a chaos for the residents and even avert the great loss of a well rooted life of generations. There is need for a more humane approach to decision making, social impact assessment studies, rehabilitation plans that do justice to all displaced and they have legal backing, and an active judiciary that assures all this.

Bageshwer Singh (bageshwersingh30@gmail.com) & Pooja Chand (poojachand2408@gmail.com)walked for 200 kms along the river Sindh under the ‘Moving Upstream: Sindh’ Fellowship from Veditum India Foundation during Feb 13-24, 2022.

Bageshwer Singh is currently working with a youth organization PAHAL, based in Jalandhar, Punjab and leading a project on Ecological Assessment of Kanjli Wetland with The Rufford Foundation, UK. He is interested in identifying the plants he sees around, and understanding their interactions with other wild-life.

Pooja Chand is a PhD student at Ashoka University and is keen on understanding how plants and animals interact with each other. When she is not studying plants and animals, she engages herself in dance, explorations, and a lot of coffee.

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